Guest post by Tim Harris on ‘cultural relativism’ in Japan

Originally a comment on In their efforts to discredit advocates of women’s international human rights.

In the 80s & 90s, one faced the same sort of thing in Japan, with what was called ‘nihon-jin-ron’, the ‘theory of the Japanese’, a thoroughly and cynically racist and chauvinistic outpouring which depended in part on taking certain questionable and often racist assertions about Japan made over a century or so by some Westerners and throwing them back in the face of the West: ‘we Japanese’ understand one another not through logic, like coldly rational Westerners, but through intuitive feeling, through ‘hara’ (guts); our arts are so extraordinarily sensitive that Westerners cannot possibly appreciate them; even though Westerners may parrot the Japanese language, they can never truly speak or understand it.

These theorists also depended heavily on the dogma of ‘cultural relativism’ which, taken to an extreme (as it all too often is – the temptation to do so is great), essentially makes ‘cultures’ like black holes to one another – though the proponents of nihonjinron insisted that ‘the Japanese’ understood the West all too well: being logical, etc, the West was easy to understand. Essentially, ‘cultural relativism’ provided a cloak for the indulging of an extreme nationalism that even extended to literary scholarship – Konishi Jin’ichi’s history of Japanese literature, for example, which was acclaimed by useful idiots in the West like Earl Miner and panned by the British scholar and translator Dennis Keene as well as myself.

When one took up cudgels against nihonjin-ron, it was remarkable how quickly charges of racism, cultural condescension, etc were made. Writers like Peter Dale, Ross Mouer, Yoshio Sugimoto (who was actually Japanese!), Karel van Wolferen, Alan Booth and, in a small way, myself had to face this. And it was interesting that these charges came as often from Westerners as from Japanese, if not more so. It was also interesting to me that most of the Western critics of nihonjin-ron were not from the US – I think this because of the closer acquaintance Europeans had with nationalist modes of thought and because of the paternalistic attitude taken towards postwar Japan by many Americans – it is something that to my mind vitiates Donald Richie’s writings on Japan, though his books on Ozu and Kurosawa are admirable.

The bubble of nihonjin-ron burst more or less with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy, though now we have the most chauvinistic government in years in power here, and one suspects the theorists could emerge again, given the right circumstances.

Really, it’s a delicate balancing act – which is something that on the one hand a parochial insistence on the universality of Western values and on the other the sort of thing indulged in by Penny and her ilk simply fail to recognize.


  1. Tim Harris says

    Well, that is nice of you, Ophelia. And now I’m no longer wasting my sweetness on the desert air, could I correct the last sentence? There’s an ‘on the other’ missing, and I’ve misspelled Pennie’s name (correcgted sentence below). Yoroshiku onegai shimasu!

    Really, it’s a delicate balancing act – which is something that on the one hand a parochial insistence on the universality of Western values and on the other the sort of thing indulged in by Pennie and her ilk simply fail to recognise.

  2. RJW says

    Yes, indeed, some Western commentators seem, routinely, to rationalise or ignore quite egregious examples of racism in non-Western societies, or even by minority communities within Western countries. I’m not sure whether it’s an example of excessive PC or latent racism, in other words ‘they protest too much’.

    Some Asians i’ve encountered seem oblivious to their own prejudices, one Han Chinese that I discussed this subject with, claimed that the use of offensive names by Han Chinese for ethnic minorities in China was part of the country’s culture and not racist.

    As far as I understand the Japanese run a racist immigration policy, imagine the outage if a Western country applied the same criteria.

    It’s long overdue that the double standard was abandoned.

  3. Katherine Woo says

    Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “a parochial insistence on the universality of Western values”?

    Are expectations of gender equality in Confucian societies “a parochial insistence on the universality of Western values”?

    Frankly with an attitude like that you sound like a person who got hoist with his own petard and is now upset. The Japanese and your Western assailants were just following the zeitgeist of fetishizing culture, promoting moral relativism, self-segregation, etc. That was how a good little leftist thought at the time, and is still more or less an accepted.

  4. Katherine Woo says

    Ooh, ooh, thought of another good one while starting lunch:

    Is it “a parochial insistence on the universality of Western values” to expect Japan to be just a little bit contrite about its genocidal imperialism towards other Asians?

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